How L.A.'s Car Culture Shaped Anenon's Jazzy New LP, Petrol

Friends of Friends will release saxophonist/producer Brian Allen Simon's new album, Petrol, on March 4.

How L.A.'s Car Culture Shaped Anenon's Jazzy New LP, <i>Petrol</i>   Anenon / Photo courtesy of MOCA

When I call Brian Allen Simon, the electronic and jazz musician known as Anenon, he’s in a quintessential Los Angeles situation: stuck in traffic. “I’m surrounded by thousands of people in their little bubble, with their own thoughts about how the day went or didn’t,” he tells me in a composed voice. A native Angeleno, Simon is releasing his third album this spring. Titled Petrol, it is both a culmination of his artistic path to date and a dedication to his hometown—a city where millions can be alone while in close proximity to one another.

Emerging from the fertile grounds of L.A.’s electronic underground in the late 2000s, Simon cut a distinct shape from the start. “I’ve always learnt everything totally fucking backwards,” he admits with a hint of irony. Simon’s interest in making music began while studying at UCLA in the mid-2000s when he immersed himself in the world of turntablism—a now niche practice of hip-hop focused on using the turntable as an instrument. Through his study, Simon gained an appreciation and understanding for unusual music composition based on postmodern practices: sampling, cut-and-paste, and layering. From The Gaslamp Killer to Nosaj Thing, turntablism has provided an important training ground over the past twenty years for many of L.A’s current electronic artists. “[It] provided a platform to people interested in sound who had no traditional skills,” Simon says of his formative years. Then in 2007, he picked up the saxophone to fulfill a lifelong interest in jazz and, thanks to regular practice with a group of friends, soon began to master a new instrument.

Simon’s first two albums—2012’s Inner Hue and 2014’s Sagrada, both released via his own Non Projects label—explored his interest in the contrasting, yet complimentary, aesthetics of free jazz and electronic music. Later, as he evolved his approach, he shifted focus from music production based on electronic techniques towards a “free jazz meets minimal aesthetic.”

“There’s a certain serenity in a car’s isolation, but also a certain madness."—Anenon

Petrol was born of an improvisation session in December 2014 between Simon on saxophone, Yvette Holzwarth on violin, and Max Kaplan on bass clarinet. From this, Simon sketched outlines for tracks and returned to the recording studio with drummer Jon-Kyle Mohr, who he'd previously performed live with. He then spent six months in his home studio, sculpting the album into a synthesis of jazz improvisation and electronic composition using a computer, saxophone, and keyboards. “I wanted this album to be more abstracted, freer, and less on the grid,” he explains as his car makes slow movements to escape L.A.’s own grid. “I think you can still feel the electronic influence. It’s just looser.”

Named after L.A.’s most precious resource (aside from land), Petrol reflects the city’s ingrained car culture. The idea came towards the end of the production process as Simon took to visiting the 110 Walkway, a glitch of urban planning that connects Northeast L.A. to Chinatown via a mile-long path alongside the Arroyo Seco parkway, where cars zip past at 70 miles per hour. “I found a sense of zen in that as I was making the record,” he admits. “There’s a certain serenity in a car’s isolation, but also a certain madness. Those were things I had on my mind as I was making the record.”

As a result, the album unfolds at a pace that mimics a drive through L.A.: at times hectic (“Lumina”, “CXP”), at others smooth (“Panes”), sometimes meditative (“Mouth”). Drawing on his love of turntablism and electronic music, Simon picks elements from the live sessions and unfurls them with precision over many layers until the result is a distance away, like a car pulling home. “There is a lot happening,” Simon says of the album. “I feel like the tracks never settle on one thing for too long.”

Last summer, as he was wrapping up the record, Simon began to contemplate leaving L.A. for the first time in 32 years. This February, he'll head out to Mexico City for two months, a sort of trial run for his potential escape from his hometown's complexities. Petrol, then, is his parting gift—for now, at least.

Petrol is out March 4 on Friends of Friends. From January 21, Brian Allen Simon and Nick Malkin are curating a quarterly series of audio installations at L.A.'s MoCA (details).

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How L.A.'s Car Culture Shaped Anenon's Jazzy New LP, Petrol